Saturday, October 25, 2008

Manarbek (Mah-nar-beck)

My host brother Manarbek is an absolute character. He brings a certain kind of life into this host family with whom I have found myself living these past 2 months (which for the record, have absolutely flown by!). Manarbek is 18 years old, and is really in many ways, just like every other 18 year old boy I've known. He lives and breathes music and cars.

A few weeks back a couple of my host brothers spent a significant amount of time showing me their collection of family photos on their computer from the past few years. Manarbek's collection of photos consisted of cars and more cars, some license plates, and a couple of fantastic photos of him in his military garb. (Everyone has to take military courses - kind of similar to ROTC - and he gets dressed up in his camo gear once a week). Apparently one of the mornings before he left he asked his older brother Azamat to take photos of him with the Jaguar dressed in his camo gear. I had to stifle my laughter as he proudly scrolled through these photos.

His current automobile obsession is the Toyota Camry. Which, I realize to fellow Americans, sounds quite absurd - especially in this Kazakhstanian family that hasn't exactly scrimped in the automobile department. And I, myself, was quite taken aback when I learned that this was his dream car of the moment. I mean, my mom drove a Toyota Camry for ten years, my brother and sister-in-law now drive it, and I'd hardly call it a car worthy of a teenage boys admiration (no offense Lailah). But, I've seen pictures of this new model of Camry, and I have to admit that it does look more like a Lexus than the typical Camry model I'm accustomed to. Anyways, he loves it, and a few weeks back it was really all he could talk about.

The other thing I learned about Kazakhstanians during this little photo session was that they are obsessed with license plates. This culture is outrageously superstitious (something I'll address in another post) and one of these superstitions is how important an individual's license plate is. If you have money, you will pay for your license plate (kind of like customized license plates in the states, except that these license plates don't have words written on them - it's all about the numbers). For example, if you ever come across a license plate in Kazakhstan with the numbers 777 on it, you can be certain that this individual has paid a lot of money for his license plate. Of course, you would never see a beat up old clunker with a 777 license plate, it's the Escalades and the Hummers with the good license plates. I was shocked as we flipped through Manarbek's photos, that for every picture of an automobile he has, he has at least three of a license plate (007, 777, etc.). These are fun little facts I've learned about Kazakhstan and it's people that are a direct result of my 18 year old host brother and his quirks.

More than the obsession with cars, Manarbek loves music, and more than music he loves dancing. Manarbek basically turns the upstairs of our house into a disco in the evenings, as he sits at his computer and blares popular dance tunes. At first, I was annoyed by the loud music a couple of doors down, but now I look forward to it. I'll be planning my lessons with my door open with the sounds of Akon, Usher, and other American artists, along with the occasional Kazakhstan or Russian pop songs, filtering down the hallway. You really can't help but tap your foot and bob your head.

Of course Manarbek sings along. They ALL do! That's another really fascinating thing about this culture: they have absolutely no shame singing. If a young Kazakhstanian has a song stuck in their head, they simply sing it. I've heard Manas (my youngest host brother) singing, and of course Manarbek (even at the dinner table), and just this past weekend I was visiting my counterpart's sister's house in Almaty and her niece (about 18 or 19) came to the table for Chai and was just belting some pop tune. No one seemed to notice, and I was trying my hardest not to stare in amazement. I mean, she didn't have a particularly good voice, in fact I might say it wasn't very good at all. But she just sang her little heart out, without thinking twice about it.
I've also seen this culture of singing in the schools. Whenever there is an assembly or an event at the school of any kind, you can't escape the singing. We had an English Language Competition about 3 weeks ago, and in the middle of the competition (almost like a half-time show) one of the students stood up, they started the sound system and she danced and sang herself around that stage. When she was done, the English Competition resumed. It was like no big deal. And, for the record, she also didn't have a particular impressive set of vocals.

But, back to Manarbek. About a month ago, I came home from the cafe (not particularly late) and heard the disco raging upstairs. As I climbed the stairs on the way to my room I heard Manarbek singing. I peeked into the computer room from the hallway, only to find Manarbek dancing his little heart out in the middle of the room. Now, normally I would have just smiled and walked away, but I couldn't resist. I walked over and stood in the doorway of the room (only to find that Azamat was actually sitting on the couch just kind of watching this little performance unfold?) and waited for Manarbek to notice the American at the door. Eventually his head bobbed my direction and he hesitated. He smiled at me, I gave him the thumbs up, and he just kept on dancing and singing. Absolutely no shame, this kid.

At the Kazakh wedding I attended at the beginning of October, Manarbek was given a chance to really show his stuff on the dance floor. And I'm not going to lie - this kid's got talent. I mean, it's Kazakh-style dancing, but he's "got moves you've never seen before". :)

Dinners always last a little longer when Manarbek is at the table, because for one, he drinks chai "like Grandma" as he says - which basically translates into really slowly. And also because when Manarbek is talking, we are all laughing. He's got the greatest "Russish" I've ever heard. He basically speaks Russian, but when he thinks he knows a word in English he just throws it in there. At which point we all laugh. This kid is endlessly entertaining in his very goofy way. His current dream is to move to Finland when he finishes at the University. Yes, you heard me right, Finland. I asked him why Finland (amidst the continuous laughter of his family) and he told me (through a whole lot of gesturing on both of our parts) that it is because they have fir trees and because he can do this: At which point, Manarbek stands up from the table and struts around the kitchen with his arms flailing about. To this day, I still have no idea what that is, but apparently Finland is the place to do it. He doesn't know anyone who has ever been to Finland, his whole family can't understand why Finland, but now Finland comes up at least once or twice a day at the table.

The fir tree thing is also fantastic. He just loves New Years Trees (they don't celebrate Christmas in Kazakhstan - being a dominantly Muslim country - but they decorate Christmas trees just like Americans do, for New Years). He has been bugging his mom to plant Fir Trees in the yard forever now, but she just laughs him off. She offered to get some small ones and try planting them and he said that that just wouldn't do. They need to be big ones. He's apparently also quite impatient. :) There is a part of me that expects to see huge fir trees in their yard before I leave the country in 2 years. I'll keep you all posted.

Basically, Manarbek makes Kazakhstan a little more entertaining each and every day. (But don't worry Ryan, you're still my favorite).

(tried to post a video of the dancing at the wedding, but it took 30 minutes and still wasn't done... another time maybe?)

The Open Road

I should probably rename this whole blog "Oh Kazakhstan..." as those two words seem to be leaving my mouth on a quite regular basis these days. Because really, in most situations, there isn't anything else to be said. It's just Kazakhstan, some things that happen here would probably never happen anywhere else in the world, and we just accept it as being a trait of this foreign land. You can't really get angry about these things, or think too much about them, because it just is. Most of the time we find ourselves laughing, because it's all you can do.

I'll try to give you a little taste of Kazakhstan as it differs from my experience in America (and even, for that matter, in France). First of all, we as PCTs and PCVs are forbidden from participating in certain activities here in Kazakhstan (for safety reasons). For one, we aren't allowed to ride horses without helmets, we aren't allowed to indulge in any "extreme" activities, such as rock-climbing, skiing (without excessive protective gear), and most importantly, driving.
Yes, that might sound absurd to an American, but here in Kazakhstan, driving is most certainly an extreme activity. Maybe more so than skydiving (and I can say that because I've experienced them both). And while driving is undoubtedly a dangerous activity in the states as well, it reaches a whole new level of extreme here in Kazakhstan. This is probably due in part to the fact that, like many things in Kazakhstan, driving has a price. I'll get back to that, but in America, every 15 year old is familiar with the process of learning to drive. Many (oddly with the exception of many of my high school friends) eagerly anticipate the day that they first sit behind that wheel and step on that gas pedal.

Well, in Kazakhstan, driving is hardly enforced. That is to say, that on numerous occasions I have been privy to seeing small children behind the wheel of the car. Yup, there are 10 year olds actually operating automobiles in Kazakhstan. Sure, the parents or grandparents are always in the car with them, but they are the sole operators of these vehicles.

When I was a small child, I remember with great joy and fondness the times when my father would take me out to the old Breuner's parking lot, sit me on his lap and let me steer the car around the parking lot for 10-15 minutes. Here, 5 or 6 year olds experience that same experience, but they are actually out on the pot-hole-infested roads. The really scary part is that I no longer find myself looking twice when I see a small four year old steering an automobile down the main road of Almalybak, on his grandfather's lap. But these 10 year olds I speak of, they actually drive themselves to school or to the magazine (store), or who knows wherever else they might be heading. I don't know how their feet can even reach the pedals?!

I was about a half block away from my house, on the way to my school a few weeks back when I heard a car approaching from behind. Being Kazakhstan, pedestrians also have absolutely no right of way on the roads (or the sidewalks for that matter, if they exist). So, naturally I scurried over to the side of the road, daringly dodging the giant mud puddles in my way, and continued walking slowly. Well, the car caught up to me and stopped next to me. I looked over, and go figure, a small boy of about 9 or 10 was driving the car. Grandpa was sitting in the passenger's seat, and the little sister was chilling in the back. They rolled down the window and told me that they would drive me to school (stop worrying Mom, I heard you when you told me not to get into cars with strangers - these were students I had seen around school, it wasn't as though I was in danger of being kidnapped or anything of the sort).

I'm pretty sure I snorted. Are you kidding me? I mean sure, there is a small amount of risk associated with being a PCV, but I'm not exactly here to just throw my life out the window (or in this case, into the hands of a 9 year old boy). I politely declined the ride, trying to insist that I really enjoyed the fresh (albeit brisk) air. Eventually I convinced them, and the small boy sped off down the dirt road. And yes, he was speeding (well, he would have been if there were speed limits). Afterwards, all I could do was laugh to myself as I continued on my way to the school (and of course send my friend Katy a text message telling her what had just happened). I'm happy to announce that the boy, his sister, and grandfather did all make it safely to school that day.

This is only the preface to the driving situation, because technically they do have "laws" about driving in Kazakhstan. I've never seen a small child driving a car in Almaty (a very large city) and my guess is that they can only get away with it in Almalybak because it is such a small village that might not even be patrolled by policemen. So here are the laws as I understand them in Kazakhstan: You can't drive until you are 18 years old in Kazakhstan, and in order to do so, you must pass a driving test (just like in America, right?). However, if you don't pass the driving test, you can just purchase a driver's license. I'm not sure if purchasing the license is "technically" legal, but the majority of driver's on the roads in Kazakhstan have not actually passed a driving test at any point in their lives - oh and yes, this includes taxi drivers and bus drivers.

So, take driving in San Francisco. Now, take 70 percent of the individuals operating vehicles and pretend they don't have a driver's license (they just bought one, say). Would you want to be on the road with these people? I think not. In addition, would you want to put yourself in the backseat of a taxi where the driver has no real experience operating a vehicle besides his lessons as a small child with his grandfather (possibly on the way to school)? What this - as you can surely imagine - results in, is absolute chaos on the road. There might be lines painted on the cement, but they are really more of a suggestion for drivers. I've been in buses, where the bus will simply pull off to the right hand side of the "freeway" and tear ass down the dirt shoulder passing all of the cars sitting in traffic, until the shoulder becomes too small for the bus and then it cuts off the line of traffic. Why? Because he can. The first time this happened, I was shocked into silence, my mouth stuck open in awe, and my eyes as wide as quarters. Now, it's just another day on the road from Almalybak to Almaty.

In addition, seatbelts are a suggestion. My host family made fun of me when I got into their car (albeit a Jaguar) and automatically strapped in for our trip to the supermarket. They all let me know that it was unnecessary and that I didn't actually have to wear the seatbelt. Fortunately, Peace Corps has a policy that if we are in a vehicle and that vehicle has functional seatbelts, we must wear them. So, I had an excuse for my actions that my host family could understand. I think there is a new law in effect that the people in the front seat of vehicles have to wear seatbelts, but it is rarely (if ever) enforced and usually results in taxi drivers pulling the seatbelts across their chest and then just hanging on their lap. I'm still addicted to my seatbelt, maybe even more so now, than before. :)

Also, good to know if you ever visit Kazakhstan (I'm sure it's top on all of your lists) is that any car on the road could be a potential taxi. Taxis are not marked, or rarely marked, I've seen maybe 10 or 12 taxis with an actual taxi sign atop the vehicle. Taxis are individually owned vehicles and people drive around town. You throw your arm out on a street and chances are the beat up old Nissan heading towards you is going to be your ride - or at least offer you one. You negotiate the price of your ride before entering the vehicle and then you're off. There are no meters in the taxis, but there is also no guarantee that this unmarked vehicle is going to take you where you asked them to. As a result, I rarely take taxis. And I definitely don't take taxis alone (so stop worrying, Mom).

One more note about traveling the roads in Kazakhstan. This one I almost forgot to mention because I have grown so used to it (like the infants steering cars) that I forget it as being abnormal. Buses and taxis in Kazakhstan are all individually owned (as stated above) and I think this is a major factor in the following occurrence: If a bus or taxi needs to fill up (needs gas), it simply stops and does so. I've been in an overcrowded bus before - standing room only, and barely any of that - and the bus has pulled off of the road and into a gas station to fill up. No one thinks this is weird. The first time it happened I thought I was dreaming, or that the bus had broken down (which, if you could see these things, is not out of the question). But, nope, the driver is just taking the opportunity to fill up the tank - no big deal. :) No one cares, or says anything, they just accept it as part of their ride, and after 10 minutes, when the bus is loaded up and ready to go, we pull out of the gas station and continue on our way. The same thing happened to me in a taxi in Merke with my counterpart (it's safe to cab it with a local, they don't get screwed over). We were on our way to visit one of my potential host families, and about a block from the house, he pulled off to get gas. My counterpart didn't say anything, we just sat there and continued our conversation while the man filled up his rickety old heap of metal (the taxis are especially decrepid in Merke) and eventually we continued on our way.

Oh Kazakhstan...

A Fresh Start

So, I know back in the states I gave all of my blogging friends (ahem! Lailah...) a whole bunch of grief for being really horrible about their blogging. And I also realize that I am now one of these obnoxious people who never updates their blog. So, any normal person would appologize for being so hypocritical and either a) learn to lower their blogging expectations of others, or b) become a more reliable and frequent blogger themselves. Well, here's my response: I'm in Kazakhstan. What's your excuse? :)

No, but in all seriousness, my life has become so different if only in the aspect that I no longer have access to some of the daily comforts of a westernized country. In America, it wasn't absurd to accuse my friends of being lazy if they didn't blog. I knew they had access to the internet, and law school well, HA! Law school is obviously no excuse for not blogging (what? Like it keeps you busy or something?). My other excuse for regularly nagging these sporadic bloggers was that I, myself, had nothing better to do. I worked in front of a computer 8 or 9 hours a day (yes, Dad, only some would actually deem my responsibilities "work") and when I found myself with no imminent task, or really no task at all, I wanted something to entertain me. I relied on the sometimes clever, sometimes humorous, sometimes insightful words of my blogger friends. And what's more annoying than being bored and going to read a friend's blog and finding, what? Oh, yea, that's right. Lailah hasn't updated her blog in 4.5 weeks...

Well, my life here is devoid of many regular comforts. Internet is really just a crap shoot. Even if you do have internet (in your town, because it's practically insane to imagine having internet in your actual residence) the reliability of this internet is non-existent. When we first moved to Almalybak, we were introduced to the internet, and one week later the internet was broken. No one seemed to be in a real hurry to fix it, and all of the PCTs were constantly dropping by the internet "cafe" with their fingers crossed hoping that maybe today, just maybe? But, they just looked at us, pitied our high hopes and shook their heads.

What was most surprising was how nearly refreshing it became to not have internet. Once I was finally granted access to a computer and given the opportunity to sit down to my email account and contact the outside world, I found myself unbelievably overwhelmed. How do I write absolutely everything that I am experiencing over here in this foreign society, or really even anything, in an email to my friends and family? And how do I do it in a short amount of time, so as to allow the impatient PCTs behind me a chance to experience the same terror and anxiety? I've almost grown to dread internet access.

Well, today I had the opportunity to sit in front of a computer for essentially as long as I wanted, with no impatient Americans waiting (as I was the only EDU PCT back from our site visit) and on the hour long bus ride to the PC Headquarters I scribbled notes on a piece of scratch paper about what I wanted to make sure I addressed in my blog entry. And what do you know? I opened up my blog and stared at the page for 10 minutes without typing anything. No, that's not true, I (uncharacteristically) titled the blog entry - Culture Shock 101. Then, I stared.

I used to enjoy blogging. I started blogging (as can be found in the first entry of this blog) as a release for my writing. I needed something to do (post-college) that would allow me to utilize this appreciation for the written word. Now, go figure, when I sit down to type these blogs that could seemingly express so much of this culture and these new experiences, that could be filled with descriptions of tastes and sounds and all that is foreign, I usually just try to throw as many facts onto the screen as possible, a verbal vomit of sorts, in an attempt to describe this experience. I don't like looking at my blog, I don't like logging into my account, I don't like what my musings have become.

Well, then I found out that what other volunteers have been doing (we're such a smart bunch over here!) is typing up their entries in advance, bringing them to the computer on a flash drive and simply transferring them. Yea, if you know me, you're feeling my pain. Of course I wish that I had thought of this ingenious idea on my own. But now, I hope to be able to provide a better understanding of how exactly my life is transforming over here in the great country of Kazakhstan, with slightly more thought-out descriptions and reflections. Because yes, I have been listening when you complain on the phone that no one still has any idea what I've been eating (which was, as we all know, my biggest concern before I boarded that plane), or what I do with all of my time, or how my Russian is coming along. Well... soon my friends. Soon.

Here's to my fresh start! (Here's where all of the Kazakhstanians - yes, we've learned that is the appropriate term for the people of Kazakhstan - raise their shot glasses, clink, and drink).


I'm having trouble with Picasa (google photo site) due to privacy restrictions on the Peace Corps computers, so I can't upload a lot of pictures, but I wanted to throw a few up here while I had a chance to finally put out some pictures from Kazakhstan! yay!

This is what a crowded bus on the way to Almaty is like...

View from my house in Almalybak of the mountains.

My running path... :)

Host Mom, Host brother Manarbek (the middle brother of 3) , and host Pops.

Dinner. :) Look at ALL that food!! Relatives came over for dinner. This is surprisingly typical of a dinner in K-stan. The guy on the far left with the yellow shirt is my oldest host brother (Azamat).

Our Jaguar and basketball hoop. Living the hard life...

I had to put in a picture of the trash... This is right by the view of the mountains from earlier.

Saturday afternoon activities for the locals...

My school in Almalybak. Yes, it's pink.

I used to pass this on my way to school in the morning (at my first host family). I had to take a picture.

3 of my 11th grade students.

A handful of my 8th grade students during an English competition at the school.

Three schoolgirls on the playground during lunch. They asked for our autographs...

My language class! (clockwise from bottom left) Seth, Katy (married from Portland, OR) Asel (our language teacher), AC (Marietta, Georgia), Leah (Flint, Michigan), and Jessie (Columbus, Mississippi, although she rarely claims it).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

It's MERKE for me.

We found out our permanent sites on Thursday. I'll be in the South of Kazakhstan, about 4 hours from Almaty (by bus) and 130 km from Taraz (another big city) and close to Shymkent (the largest city in the South). So, I'm heading to Merke, Kazakhstan for the remainder of my 2 years. I'll be moving there in the beginning of November (the 8th I think?). The town itself is about 30,000 people, mild winters (no Siberian snow winters for me...), but very green and lots of fruits and veggies all year long. That's about all I know, so Google it and let me know what you find out.